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What Are the Key Differences Between Visitation and Custody?

The Difference Between Child Custody and Visitation

Divorce and child custody cases are always difficult – even if they’re not legally complex, they can be emotionally taxing and draining. Ending a relationship with a spouse or partner is hard, and reconciling yourself to sharing your children with someone who is no longer your partner can be even harder.

In many custody cases, one or both parents will be going from being a full-time parent who sees their children every day to a parent who only sees their child a few times a week. Parents who must be without their children on weekends and certain holidays, or some other arrangement that is a drastic change from the situation that they’re used to.

That’s hard enough, but it’s going to be even more difficult if you don’t understand the terminology around child custody and visitation, or you don’t know what custody or visitation arrangement you should be advocating for.

Sometimes the terms “custody” and “visitation” are used interchangeably, but they’re actually not the same thing, and there are different types of both custody and visitation arrangements. Take a look at some of what you need to know about the differences between custody and visitation.

Understanding the Distinction Between Custody and Visitation

The word “custody” usually refers to who the child lives with or who is making decisions about the child’s health, education, and welfare. The word “visitation” on the other hand, has to do with giving a parent and child time together – time to visit one another – even though the visiting parent is not the parent with whom the child lives or the parent who is making important decisions about the child.

In short, a parent who has custody typically has more involvement in their child’s life – or at least more opportunity for involvement – and more opportunity to make important decisions about their child’s life, while a parent who has visitation has fewer rights but is still able to maintain some type of regular presence in their child’s life.

How Custody Works

There are two main types of child custody: physical custody and legal custody. When people talk about custody generally, what they’re usually talking about is physical custody, or who the child lives with. One parent can have sole physical custody or both parents can share physical custody.

When one parent has sole physical custody it means that the child lives with them full time – they may see the other parent regularly and even sleep over at the other parent’s house from time to time, but their permanent home is the home of the parent with physical custody. When parents share custody, it means that the child could live with either parent.

Often, the child’s time is not split evenly between the two parents even in cases of shared custody – school schedules, geographical limitations, and other factors can prevent an even 50/50 split. But in most states, there is a minimum number of overnight visits that the child must have with each parent for the arrangement to count as a shared custody arrangement.

Although it isn’t as widely discussed and understood, legal custody is another important matter to consider. Legal custody is the right to make decisions about important factors in your child’s life, like where they go to school, what religion they’ll follow, if any, and what kinds of medical treatment they will or won’t have.

Like physical custody, legal custody can be granted to one parent or shared between both parents, and legal custody is often shared even in cases where only one parent has physical custody. However, if parents have serious disagreements on legal issues involving their child, a judge may decide that one parent will have the final word on major decisions in order to prevent repeated stalemates.

How Visitation Works

When only one parent is given physical custody, it’s common for the other parent to be given some type of visitation. Family courts have an interest in ensuring that a child has some type of ongoing contact with both parents in most cases because children typically have better outcomes when both parents are actively involved in their lives.

So, unless a parent poses some type of danger to their child’s health or wellbeing, it’s likely that they’ll be granted visitation at a minimum. That doesn’t always mean that a parent will have unrestricted access to their child, though. One form of visitation is supervised visitation – when the parent visits with their child under the supervision of the other parent, a designated third party, or a social worker or another type of professional.

Supervised visitation can be used when there’s a question about the fitness of the visiting parent or about the child’s safety with that parent. It can also be used when a parent comes into the child’s life for the first time or returns after a long absence, in order to ensure that the child feels safe and comfortable as they get to know the visiting parent.

In some cases, supervised visitation is a temporary solution, and the parent can eventually be granted unsupervised visitation if they meet the court’s requirements. In cases where visitation is decided by a family court, there’s usually a schedule for the visits that both parents have to abide by. The visiting parent is allowed to spend time with their child on certain days and times, and the rest of the time they remain with the parent who has custody.

Not every visitation schedule is formally arranged, though. In some cases, parents don’t go through the court system to set up a visitation schedule and instead agree on an informal arrangement, which may be more flexible for one or both parents.

However, it’s important to note that informal visitation agreements are difficult or impossible to enforce. Going through the family court system to get a visitation agreement that’s approved by a judge gives you legal standing to have the agreement enforced, should your child’s other parent ever decide to stop honoring your agreement.

Often, parents can work out a mutually agreeable custody or visitation arrangement outside of court or with a mediator, and even when they cannot come to an agreement, they can often argue the case for themselves in family court. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you get the visitation or custody agreement you want without the expense of hiring a custody attorney.

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